Photographer's Note

A partially restored house in Herculaneum, near Pompeii

Ancient tradition connected Herculaneum with the name of the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules in Latin and consequently Roman Mythology), an indication that the city was of Greek origin. In actuality, it seems that some primitive forefathers of the Samnite tribes of the Italian mainland founded the first civilization on the site of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century BC. Soon after, the town came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. It is the Greeks who named the city Herculaneum. In the 4th century BC Herculaneum again came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC, when, having participated in the Social War ("war of the allies" against Rome), it was defeated by Titus Didius, a legate of Sulla.

The catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius occurred on the afternoon of August 24, 79 AD. Because Vesuvius had been dormant for approximately 800 years, it was no longer even recognized as a volcano.

Based on the archaeological excavations on the one hand and two letters of Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus on the other hand, the course of the eruption can be reconstructed.

At around 1 PM on August 24, 79 AD, Vesuvius began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky. When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading Pliny to describe it to Tacitus as a stone pine tree. The prevailing winds at the time blew towards the southeast which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city of Pompeii and the area surrounding it. Since Herculaneum lay to the west of Vesuvius, it was only mildly affected by the first phase of the eruption. Whereas the roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of the falling debris, only a few centimeters of ash fell on Herculaneum causing little damage. This was, however, enough to cause many of the inhabitants to flee.

It was long thought that nearly all of the inhabitants managed to escape because initial excavations revealed only a few skeletons. It wasn't until 1982 when the excavations reached boat houses on the beach area that this view changed. In 12 boat houses archaeologists discovered 250 skeletons huddled close together.

During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius. A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of 400░C (750░F) gas, ash, and rock racing down toward Herculaneum at 100 mph. At about 1 AM it reached the boat houses where its intense heat killed the inhabitants within seconds. This flow and several following did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling the structures from the bottom up.
The amazingly good state of preservation of the structures and their contents is due to three factors:

By the time the wind changed and ash began to fall on Herculaneum, the structures were already filled up. Thus the roofs did not collapse.

The intense heat of the first pyroclastic flow carbonized the surface of organic materials and extracted the water from them.

The deep (up to 25 meters), dense tuff formed an airtight seal over Herculaneum for 1700 years.

Excavation began at modern Ercolano in 1738. The elaborate publication of Le AntichitÓ di Ercolano ("The Antiquities of Herculaneum") under the patronage of the King of the Two Sicilies had an effect on incipient European Neoclassicism out of all proportion to its limited circulation; in the later 18th century, motifs from Herculaneum began to appear on stylish furnishings from decorative wall-paintings and tripod tables to perfume burners and teacups. However, excavation ceased once the nearby town of Pompeii was discovered, which was significantly easier to excavate due to the reduced amount of debris covering the site (four meters as opposed to Herculaneum's twenty meters). In the twentieth century, excavation once again resumed in the town. However, many public and private buildings, including the forum complex, are yet to be excavated.

Scanned from the original 35mm B&W negative, Hell S3900 scanner.


Nobody has marked this note useful

Photo Information
Viewed: 2742
Points: 2
  • None
Additional Photos by chris Protopapas (diafani) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 157 W: 7 N: 96] (1143)
View More Pictures